Aquinas in Glory

St. THOMAS AQUINAS, (c. 1225–74), ‘Doctor Angelicus’, philosopher and theologian. Of noble birth, he was educated at the Benedictine school at Monte Cassino, being destined by his parents for the abbacy. Despite opposition, he joined the Dominican Order in 1244. From 1245 to 1248 he was at Paris, where he came under the influence of St. Albert the Great; he went with him to Cologne. In 1252 he returned to Paris. He was sent to Italy in 1259 and taught in various Dominican houses there until he was recalled to Paris in 1269. Here he combated the teaching of Siger of Brabant. In 1272 he went to Naples to set up a Dominican school. He died in the Cistercian abbey of Fossanova on his way to the Council of Lyons.

THE extent of his writing is immense. His philosophy is largely embodied in commentaries on Aristotle, and indeed it received its characteristic shape under the influence of his newly recovered works. Much of his theology and spirituality is contained in his Biblical commentaries. His work found its culmination in two Summae: the Summa contra Gentiles, designed as a textbook for missionaries, and the Summa Theologica, the highest achievement of medieval theological systematization, which was unfinished at the time of his death. Several propositions from his writings were condemned in 1277, but in 1278 the Dominican General Chapter officially imposed his teaching in the order, and the Roman Catholic Church has accepted the substance of it as an authentic expression of doctrine.

FUNDAMENTAL in his teaching is a sharp distinction between reason and faith. If in a large area reason is paramount, many fundamental Christian verities (the Trinity, the Incarnation) lie beyond its province. Such doctrines reach us through revelation, embodied in Scripture and in the teaching of the Fathers. As their province is that of faith, where primacy belongs to the will, not the intellect, their acceptance by the believer is a matter of moral decision.

IN his theory of knowledge, he accepts the Aristotelian maxim that, since all knowledge presupposes an essential likeness between the knower and the known and man’s nature is corporeal as well as intellectual, cognition necessarily sets out from sense-perception. This belief gave his arguments for the existence of God their characteristic shape. Also running through his system are the Aristotelian antitheses of potency and act and of matter and form.

HIS theology was less original, but equally thoroughly elaborated. The Incarnation and the Sacraments claimed his special attention. Against the Franciscans he maintained that the Incarnation would not have taken place apart from the Fall and that the Blessed Virgin was not immaculately conceived. He held that all seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ, that the Eucharist was the highest of them all, and that as the ultimate purpose of Orders was the Eucharist, the Priesthood was the highest Order and the Episcopate not a separate Order. For elaborating the doctrine of transubstantiation he employed the Aristotelian philosophy of substance and accidents. He is said to have composed the Office for the newly instituted feast of Corpus Christi, but there is some doubt in this matter.

Based on The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. E. Livingstone.

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